For Father Luis Olivares, Christianity Was a Radical Doctrine

This Easter, we remember the life of Father Luis Olivares, a leader in the sanctuary movement of the 1980s and a proponent of liberation theology. To him, Christianity was a call to stand with the poor and oppressed of the world.

Father Luis Olivares (L) and Jackson Browne during the Sixth Annual Central American Refugee Center Benefit Dinner at Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, California, April 26, 1990. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, the migrant justice movement lost an unlikely leader. Father Luis Olivares was a Catholic priest and California activist whose untimely death cut short an unusual career that was transformed by the popular movements of his day.

Subtitle notwithstanding, Mario T. García’s biography of Olivares is much more an account of the priest as seen by his peers than the story of the sanctuary movement that made him a national figure. It’s a personal, not a political history, and the priest’s radicalism sometimes appears to outflank his biographer’s progressive liberalism.

Nevertheless, a remarkable story emerges from García’s book: that of an ambitious and conservative Church bureaucrat, whose radicalization under the influence of social movements placed his parish at the heart of one of the biggest political battles of the 1980s United States.

An Unlikely Radical

Olivares was one of seven siblings born to Mexican parents in segregated, Great Depression–era San Antonio. His family fled to Texas during the Mexican Revolution and sheltered priests fleeing the revolution’s anticlericalism, and perhaps as a result, García’s account of the twentieth century’s first great popular revolution is startlingly unsympathetic.

Olivares followed his older brother Henry into the priesthood. Later in life, Olivares admitted that he chose to become a priest because it was a “status symbol” in his working-class Catholic world. They joined the Claretian order of Spanish missionaries, enduring thirteen years of orthodox training and military-style discipline in those years before the Second Vatican Council brought progressive social reforms to the Church.

Most of the social upheaval of the 1960s passed Olivares by when he was a young priest in Los Angeles. His brother soon left the cloth, disillusioned with the Claretians’ resistance to the new socially conscious mandates of Vatican II. Olivares began to give mass in English, not Latin, and faced the congregation, not the altar, but he seemed largely unmoved by the popular spirit of the reforms.

In 1967, at the age of thirty-three, Olivares became the Claretians’ regional secretary treasurer. He thrived, managing a multimillion-dollar stock portfolio. He was wined and dined by bankers and brokers; bought expensive, tailor-made suits and Gucci shoes; and directed the order to purchase a Lincoln Continental and a Cadillac for his personal use. He lived in the old Gillette mansion, now a Claretian property, which he refurnished to his taste.

“Taking the vow of humility was one thing; living by it was a more complex and human task,” writes García. Olivares’s political declarations in this period were limited to his condemnation of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, a conservative conviction that he would maintain even after his political awakening.

A Path to Politics

Olivares’s politicization began with his move from the Gillette mansion to the working-class Mexican-American neighborhood of Boyle Heights in 1974. Ministering to the Our Lady of Solitude parish, he assumed the supervision of seminarian Richard Estrada’s work with the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement.

By then, the UFW was nationally recognized for its successful five-year struggle against California growers for unionization and higher wages for its majority Mexican and Filipino membership. Estrada convinced Olivares to use parish property as the staging ground for a UFW consumer boycott of lettuce and table grapes. The priest started to participate in volunteer trainings and neighborhood house meetings. “As he became more involved, the people he worked with inspired him, and he began to reorient his priorities,” writes García.

By Olivares’s own account, meeting César Chávez — the charismatic face of the UFW — was a transformative moment in the priest’s self-professed political “conversion.” Chávez, an experienced organizer trained by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in the Saul Alinsky tradition, was also a devout Catholic, as were most UFW members. Olivares became a “personal chaplain” to Chávez, saying mass for farmworkers in the Central Valley and performing sacraments for the Chávez family, with whom he became very close.

As Olivares recalled, “You may initially get involved in a cause for altruistic reasons, because you want to help those ‘poor people,’ but pretty soon you are fighting with them, and they are doing more to convert your way of thinking than what you are doing for them.” Olivares joined UFW marches, rallies, and conventions; he spoke at press conferences and absorbed the tactical and strategic lessons that he would bring to his community-organizing work in East Los Angeles and forward into the sanctuary movement.

Cesar Chavez (center) on march from Mexican border to Sacramento with United Farm Workers members in Redondo Beach, California, July 9, 1975. (John Malmin, Los Angeles Times via Wikimedia Commons)

Organizing the Barrio

If the UWF was Olivares’s “baptism of social activism,” the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) was his confirmation. UNO was formalized in 1976. The group was inspired by the unfortunately named Communities for Organized Public Service (COPS), an IAF affiliate that organized in working-class, minority neighborhoods in San Antonio. COPS adapted the Alinsky model of issue-driven campaigns toward a more permanent grassroots presence rooted in local parishes.

In Los Angeles, the effort was sparked by Juan Arzube, an Ecuadorian priest whose appointment as the first Latino bishop of the Los Angeles archdiocese was a partial concession to pressure from Chicano Catholics for greater action on behalf of Mexican-American parishioners. Father Rafael Luna took the lead, having recently returned from Ecuador, where he was studying liberation theology, the social justice–driven doctrine that was radicalizing the Catholic Church from the ground up across Latin America.

Luna convened an Interreligious Sponsoring Committee (IRSC), bringing together East Los Angeles parishes and Protestant congregations to expand outreach and, strategically, maintain independence from the archdiocese. In the spirit of liberation theology, UNO’s goal was to politicize and empower East Los Angeles residents, connecting religious community to local issues and putting faith principles into practice.

The Alinsky method involves identifying discrete, “winnable” issues for campaigns. UNO’s first issue became its signature one: fighting the discriminatory rates charged to East Los Angeles residents by car insurance companies. Olivares was chosen to chair the anti-redlining action committee.

Over the course of a two-year campaign, Olivares emerged as a leading spokesperson, commanding respect and projecting righteousness in his priest’s collar. Through public pressure, carefully rehearsed mass events, and political negotiations, UNO eventually secured premium reductions from leading insurance companies.

Olivares was so taken with the Alinsky method that, as president of the progressive Chicano priest association PADRES in 1979, he sought unsuccessfully to make the group an IAF affiliate. But while the Church hierarchy was wary of the IAF’s radical tendencies, the IAF’s pragmatic approach also drew criticism from the Left.

“Some on the political Left, including activists in the Chicano Movement, criticized UNO for being too reformist and willing to work within the system and for not addressing the root causes of poverty and oppression as the result of capitalist exploitation and racism,” García acknowledges.

The author doesn’t give these critiques much weight, arguing that “UNO and to some degree PADRES, like the Chicano Movement, initiated the long march to contemporary Latino political power in the United States.” Olivares, however, would come to espouse a more radical analysis through his work with Central American revolutionaries and embrace of liberation theology.

Solidarity and Sanctuary

In 1981, Olivares transferred to the iconic La Placita Church in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. The flagship parish of the Claretian order in the city, Our Lady Queen of Los Angeles would soon become the center of the sanctuary movement in Southern California.

By this point, US counterrevolutionary violence in Central America was making international headlines, with the assassination of Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero on March 24, 1980, followed by the rape and murder of four US churchwomen by US-backed forces that December. Led by Central American exiles, ecumenical and New Left coalitions in the United States organized nationally against the imperialist interventions and in solidarity with their victims.

Refugees from the US-backed wars were a growing presence in Los Angeles, and many were turning up at La Placita’s doorstep. The Reagan administration, however, refused to grant them asylum, since doing so would mean recognizing the genocidal state violence that its allies were deploying against civilians. While relatively wealthy Nicaraguans fleeing the Sandinista’s revolution were welcomed with open arms, García notes that by 1986, fewer than 3 percent of Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum claims had been recognized.

President Ronald Reagan during the state visit of President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador at his arrival ceremony, October 14, 1987. (White House Photographic Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

Olivares was soon approached by Father Mike Kennedy, a young Jesuit priest and liberation theology adherent, about building a parish program for Central American refugees. Under Kennedy’s direction, La Placita opened the Rutilio Grande Pastoral Center, named for the Salvadoran priest assassinated in 1977.

Kennedy organized liberation theology–inspired Christian base communities to reflect on social issues through the lens of the Bible and volunteer with the new center’s programs. These included providing food and shelter to migrants, together with medical attention, counseling, job placement, and language classes. The parish partnered with groups like the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center to connect migrants with legal aid services. Olivares and Kennedy also offered logistical support through an interfaith underground railroad for migrants escaping deportation into the Midwest or Canada.

Before Olivares’s tenure, the church already opened up temporary sleeping space to some fifteen to twenty homeless people each night. By the late 1980s, over two hundred people were spending their nights in La Placita, sleeping on pews, in the hallway, on basement cots, or in the adjacent chapel. The parish also gained access to a nearby Jesuit convent that it made available for women, children, and families, baptizing the space Casa Rutilio Grande.

As Olivares’s relationship with the Los Angeles refugee community deepened, so did his commitments. Olivares began traveling to Central America in the mid-1980s. He joined interfaith delegations to bear witness to and denounce the ravages of US intervention. Olivares openly aligned himself with the region’s national liberation struggles, proudly hosting Nicaraguan president and Sandinista National Liberation Front leader Daniel Ortega during his 1984 visit to Los Angeles.

This revolutionary orientation marked a departure from Olivares’s pragmatic IAF training. The struggles of refugees and unhoused people, García notes, was not a classic IAF “winnable issue.” Instead, Olivares advanced liberation theology’s structural critique of capitalism, imperialism, and inequality. Reorienting US foreign and immigration policy was an uncertain struggle, but it was a righteous one.

“Obedience to God, No to Civil Authorities”

Olivares formally declared his parish a sanctuary for Central American refugees on December 12, 1985, becoming the first Catholic church in the country to do so. The act merely made official the work already underway at La Placita, but it was also a political challenge to the Reagan administration, which US Catholic bishops had refused to defy.

By this point, some three hundred religious organizations from diverse ecumenical traditions had joined the sanctuary movement since Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church launched the struggle in 1982. Determined to take a hard line, Reagan prosecuted the Arizona sanctuary leaders, and in January 1985, a federal grand jury indicted sixteen people, many of them clergy. This persecution, writes García, was a catalyst for Olivares’s decision to go public.

“We are compelled to exercise the option of obedience to God by having to say ‘no’ to civil authorities,” read one press release for the December 12 action at La Placita. “We cannot and will not stand idly by and permit our brothers and sisters from Guatemala and El Salvador to be deported to their homeland where their very lives are at risk.”

Refugees gave testimony during the interfaith ceremony, their faces masked to protect their identities from immigration authorities. “The president of this country continues sending arms and bombs to destroy our homes, our families, and our country,” one anonymous woman declared. “It is not just!”

Soon after, Olivares joined the movement against the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which offered an “amnesty” for a limited population of qualifying migrants while sanctioning employers who hired undocumented workers. He stood beside fifty-two other Catholic priests in a September 1987 press conference denouncing the law.

In December, La Placita became the first sanctuary church in the nation to extend its invitation to undocumented Mexican migrants. At the ceremony, Olivares circulated a pledge of noncooperation with IRCA. This principled defense of undocumented migrant workers as economic refugees equally deserving of sanctuary notably distinguished the priest from his lifelong friend, César Chávez.

Olivares’s solidarity and sanctuary work transcended the parish walls. He was the founding director of the Coalition of Human Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and joined the Southern California Ecumenical Council Interfaith Task Force on Central America (SCITCA), formed following Romero’s 1980 assassination to protest US intervention and defend refugees.

Óscar Romero during his stay in Rome, June 21, 1978. (Arzobispado de San Salvador / Wikimedia Commons)

He also supported the strike of majority-undocumented workers with Los Angeles’s Packing House Workers, leading vigils outside the plant, and backed union drives among hotel workers and other service industry employees. He fought the harassment of day laborers by the police and immigration authorities, allowing them to congregate for hire on Church property and extending the same offer to unlicensed street vendors.

Following the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in El Salvador in November 1989, Olivares convened his interfaith comrades to form the Wednesday Morning Coalition for Peace and Justice in Central America and the United States, which he cochaired. The group held weekly protests and acts of civil disobedience that saw Olivares arrested several times, alongside celebrities like Martin Sheen, Jackson Brown, and Kris Kristofferson.


García quotes Olivares declaring that, “if it is expected for the Church’s survival to align itself with the rich and the powerful, I’d go so far as to say that the Church should not exist.” Olivares may have been beloved by his congregation, but such positions did not win him friends in the Church hierarchy. In 1987, Los Angeles archbishop Roger Mahony sought unsuccessfully to remove him from the parish.

Theodoor Rombouts, Christ Driving the Money Changers From the Temple, 17th century. (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp via Wikimedia Commons)

Olivares was also the target of government threats and harassment. In 1988, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) opened an inconclusive criminal investigation against Olivares, Kennedy, and Father Greg Boyle, whose Dolores Mission Parish had joined La Placita in declaring sanctuary.

La Placita was subjected to FBI surveillance and infiltration schemes, and while García makes no allegations, the book recounts several events with all the hallmarks of COINTELPRO, like the circulation of an anonymous church flyer denouncing the 1985 sanctuary declaration, or the vandalism of the downtown INS offices by a supposed migrant smuggler who claimed to sleep at La Placita.

In 1987, Olivares began receiving death threats. García attributes these to far-right Salvadoran death squads, although he notes that some “believed that the threats actually came from the FBI or CIA.”

The risk was real. García references the 1987 kidnapping, torture, and sexual assault of Salvadoran refugee Yanira Correa outside the Los Angeles offices of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), perpetrated by two men with Salvadoran accents who interrogated her about the organization’s connections to the Salvadoran insurgency. Ana Marta López, who worked for the Guatemalan Cultural Center, was also abducted by two apparently Salvadoran men who interrogated and threatened her that same day.

No arrests were ever made. García mentions that the FBI “did investigate Central American support groups such as CISPES” and that INS commissioner Harold Ezell “downplayed the threats and questioned the existence of death squads in Los Angeles.”

“We are distinguished by having a preferential option for the poor,” Olivares preached to his parishioners. “The ‘migra’ doesn’t like this. The FBI doesn’t like it, and many civil authorities don’t like it. They don’t like our preaching a radical Gospel that is in defense of the poor, of the refugees, and of the undocumented.”

The Claretians enforced term limits on their pastors, and by the end of the decade, Olivares’s time at La Placita was running out. In 1989, the order announced his transfer to Fort Worth, Texas. Olivares sought within Church channels to remain in Los Angeles, but the hierarchy was set on ridding the archdiocese of this controversial figure.

Olivares protested the ecclesiastical coup, lamenting that the “lack of a process and secrecy” in a “post-Vatican II era where the Church should be more open.” In the end, his move was halted by a tragic turn in his health.


Olivares had frequent health problems throughout the 1980s. He was diabetic and suffered from hepatitis, but around 1990, he suffered a dramatic decline. That year, the priest was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

Olivares chose to make the diagnosis public, hoping to help destigmatize the virus. He participated in some fundraisers, but was largely alienated from AIDS activists in Los Angeles, who resented his insistence on having contracted the disease via an unsterilized injection in a rural Salvadoran clinic or refugee camp.

La Placita’s sanctuary activities subsided in the absence of Olivares’s energetic leadership. Mike Kennedy transferred to the Jesuit Dolores Mission parish, taking the Rutilio Grande Center with him to ensure its continuity. “I regret that it was not grassroots enough for it to survive on its own,” Olivares reflected in an interview.

He spent his remaining years in the Claretians’ western headquarters in Los Angeles. His last public appearance was a celebration of the January 1992 peace accords that brought a negotiated close to the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador.

Olivares died on March 18, 1993, at the age of fifty-nine. Mourners draped a UFW flag and a Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) banner on his casket. As they paid their respects, funeralgoers decorated his cassock with political pins from the causes to which Olivares had dedicated his life.

García does his best to show the contradictions and humanity of his complex subject. His book is an earnest tribute to Olivares and his fervent commitment to what García calls “faith politics.” The five-hundred-page volume, however, has some noteworthy omissions.

The author’s exhaustive interviews with Olivares’s family and colleagues do not extend to the rank-and-file farmworkers with whom he organized or the migrants to whom he provided sanctuary. Nor does García attend to the solidarity movement at a national scale, and he downplays the foundational role of savvy Central American organizers in that struggle.

García celebrates Olivares as a “remarkable, courageous, and charismatic individual,” an “inspiration and progressive role model,” and “one of the most significant Latino political leaders” of the 1980s. Certainly, he was all those things. But beyond an exceptional individual’s force of character, Olivares’s story is a lesson in the transformative teaching power of struggle. Olivares gained his convictions through practice and in community. From conservative clergyman to the people’s priest, Olivares’s personal “conversion” is a testament to the unmatched capacity of movements to change us.